There has been a lot of hype over the past few years about viral video and how to make one. So aside from getting cute babies to do funny things I thought that it would be worth digging a little deeper to try and gain an understanding of what makes a video go viral.
So why do people share content?
Whether it be video, blog posts, apps or photos, people love to share new things with their friends and acquaintances. Being the first to find some great content amongst a group of friends and passing it onto them is in effect a gift.
You are giving something to others that you want them to enjoy with no expectation of the gift being reciprocated (in most cases). If you get some comments that the gift was enjoyed then it makes it worthwhile. It can also raise your profile within a group as if you get to be well known for sharing great content you may gain respect and authority within the group.
Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman carried out a piece of research ‘What Makes Online Content Viral?’ in 2011 where they examined the root causes of the sharing of nearly 7000 articles in the New York Times; why some articles are shared and why some are not. They found that in particular emotionally evocative content drives virality, both negative and positive, but they found that content which invokes positive emotions is particularly effective in driving virality.
“Virality is driven, in part, by physiological arousal. Content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral. Content that evokes low arousal, or deactivating emotions (e.g., sadness) is less viral. These results hold even controlling for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is (all of which are positively linked to virality), as well as external drivers of attention (e.g., how prominently content was featured). Experimental results further demonstrate the causal impact of specific emotion on transmission, and illustrate that it is driven by the level of activation induced.”
This makes sense as we like to think of ourselves in a positive light, we want people to like us, we want to be known as kind, generous, helpful, witty and knowledgeable.
The sharing of positive content helps to reinforce this self-impression and also can raise our social standing in a group. It has also been found that the level of arousal or emotional activation affects the level of virality. For example; there are different kinds of negative content that may be shared due to different emotions including anger, anxiety and sadness.
Sadness is an emotion that carries a low level of arousal and is less likely to trigger sharing whereas anger carries a high level of arousal and motivates us to act.
When dealing with positive content, it has been found that content that inspires ‘awe’ can aid virality as again it carries a high level of arousal
“Awe is characterized by a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self (e.g. a new scientific discovery or someone overcoming adversity, Keltner and Haidt 2003). It is generated by stimuli that open the mind to unconsidered possibilities and the arousal it induces may promote transmission.”
How can a business effect a process towards improving the virality of their videos?
Happiness or contentment is another positive emotion but it is much less active than awe so inspires less of a viral response. The chart above gives a quick visual impression of how videos could be compared. The X-axis is positivity and the Y-axis is the level of emotional arousal.
You will find that in general that videos with high levels of sharing will be found at the top left or top right of the chart.
Internally you could judge a video on these 2 measures following production and map it into a chart like this, then you could map on the level of shares through the various social networks following release to see if they map with your pre-release assessment. This will allow you to be a little more scientific and focused on the content that you produce and allow you to learn which videos work and why.
However, we are talking about measuring human emotions on aggregate here so at best this will be a guideline.
Therefore with all of this in mind our video production should target people’s active emotions as well as carrying a strong message that is skewed either positively or negatively. As all of us have different businesses, different products and varying aims we need to use this knowledge where applicable.
There is no point going over the top and trying to make every video we produce a high impact emotional roller coaster but we should at least have the viewers emotions in mind when creating content and we should plan and write our content with as much of a steer to these emotions as is appropriate. We know also from the Japanese T-shirt folding video on Youtube that a short, helpful instructional video can become incredibly viral, but this was due to the broadness of it’s application; i.e. everyone has to fold T-shirts on almost a daily basis.
On Measuring virality
Measuring virality is also something that you should do with your target market in mind. If you sell pipes for plumbers then you cannot expect to get millions of views of your video from potential customers. The best you can hope for is a broad viewing within your own sector.
Compare your video views to other videos targeting the same market for a general idea on how you are doing. Most importantly how are your business enquiries and sales changing after you create and market new videos?
Seeding video content
Also, I think that it is worth mentioning that a lot of the time now money plays a significant part in virality. Large brands such as BMW, VW, Evian, Old Spice etc invest heavily in online video and in ensuring it goes viral. However, this is not solely down to the nature of the content itself. In a way it is not natural virality, it is forced through the use of other resources.
There is always a massive marketing effort behind these videos that ensure that they are not left to fester in a hidden broom cupboard somewhere on Youtube. There will be a team submitting to all of the social bookmarking sites. The video will be strategically tweeted by Twitter accounts with large numbers of followers (often paid for) and the same goes for Facebook. Many of these brands have invested heavily in Twitter and Facebook and have very large followings on these platforms which aid the speed of distribution.
They will also have relationships with PR agencies and bloggers in their sector and the general press that will distribute content rapidly on their behalf (again paid for). All of this will be carefully planned and timed to get into the top viewed videos for the day on YouTube and from that point the viral effect does start to take over.
This unfortunately means that smaller businesses have to produce better content on much smaller budgets and to market it harder – tough!
However, the fact is that with it often being the business owners who are involved in the video production themselves, heart and soul goes into the work and this is clearly seen on screen and triggers emotions.
How your video content spreads depends on 2 key areas:
1) That your content initiates an emotional reaction in the viewer; does it make them feel excited? Does it make them feel empowered, smart or in the know? Does it make them feeling angry about something or does it inspire awe?
2) That you make an effort to market your content; even if you create the most perfect video in the world no-one will see it unless you actively go out and point it out to people.
Over time you will learn what works and what does not work for your target audience and you will become better at giving them content that is likely to be shared. Do not expect to create viral content regularly, it will be a bit hit and miss even if you do completely understand the essence of virality. Consumers can be fickle, but making people want to share your information, can help increase your odds of creating viral content.